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From Shirtwaist to Bangladesh, What's Next?

While we decry the atrocious conditions in Bangladeshi garment factors, and guiltily ignore underage labor and worker suicides in Chinese electronics factories, we shouldn't forget to be appalled by the workplace conditions in our own backyard.
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On February 21, 2014 Cesar Valenzuela, an immigrant worker and father of two, was killed while driving a baggage tug on the airfield at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). In blatant violation of Federal health and safety regulations, the tug he was driving did not have a seat belt. Valenzuela was thrown from the vehicle and died from blunt trauma when the vehicle ran him over.

Valenzuela's wife says that her husband often complained of "seat belts on many of the tugs being broken or tied underneath the seat so workers could not use them... and that he felt pressure to work faster than he thought was safe, because Menzies provided fewer workers than the airlines required, and he was afraid to fall behind."

Cesar's death occurred just months after Menzies Aviation was fined nearly $95 thousand by Cal/OSHA for health and safety violations at LAX. These citations included not only a previous seat belt violation, but also two "Serious" violations and one "Willful" violation. A "Serious" violation is one in which the hazard could cause death or serious injury. A "Willful" violation, about as awful as it sounds, is one in which the employer shows "purposeful disregard" or "plain indifference" to employee safety.

Cesar is the fourth Menzies worker to die since after sustaining injuries at California airports since 2006 (see stories of the three previous deaths here, here, and here). Two workers died after having been crushed to death on the job. Another fell off of the blades of a forklift and broke his neck. He died after 54 days in a coma. In May 2012, fed up with the neglect and carelessness of the company, Menzies employees and other service workers at LAX went on strike. Menzies workers have also brought their concerns to the LAX Board of Airport Commissioners and the Los Angeles City Council, so far to no avail.

LAX is not the only airport where Menzies employees have protested workplace hazards. In 2012, the company lost a court battle and was forced to pay over three hundred thousand dollars to two men who they fired in retaliation for cooperating with health and safety inspectors. The plaintiffs worked at a Portland International Airport and complained of having no access to a toilet while on the job. Employees had to resort to using a bucket. Some even soiled their pants. Think of that next time you connect through Portland.

These disturbing incidents illustrate just how vulnerable our workers are to serious occupational hazards that result in injuries and death. A report by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that "over 50,000 workers a year lose their lives to illnesses they contracted at work." That adds up to 150 work-related deaths a day, costing the US economy an estimated $45.5 billion dollars a year. The same reports cites that "5,000 more [employees] die on their job site," never again getting the chance to clock out and go home to their families.

Tragically, most of these deaths probably could have been prevented. Employers like Menzies, as well as the government agencies that oversee them, have a responsibility to provide bathrooms and seatbelts, and to take the issue of workplace safety like it's a matter of life and death, which, for our workers, it is.

Our tomato pickers, it turns out, are no safer than our baggage handlers. A report by the Farmworker Justice organization brought to light last year "that thousands of [farm] workers suffer pesticide-related illnesses every year, mainly because employers and workplace standards are not in place to prevent exposure as safety standards regarding pesticide exposure have not been updated in over 20 years." According to another study of pesticide related deaths, "an average of 57.6 out of every 100,000 agricultural workers experience acute pesticide poisoning, illness or injury each year. This number excludes the many workers who suffer chronic health problems such as cancer, infertility, and neurological disorders, including Parkinson's disease, as a result of these toxic exposures."

If employees are too buck-blinded by profits to properly care for their workers, somebody else needs to step in. But to give an example of acute understaffing in just one state's occupational safety and health agency: Cal/OSHA presides over a jurisdiction of 18.5 million California workers, and yet has only 178 inspectors. That translates to one inspector for each 109 thousand workers.

If Cal/OSHA is to fulfill its mission of protecting workers from workplace injuries and fatalities, it needs a radical revamp. A step in the right direction is to increase its health and safety inspector staffing. Another step is to more strictly enforce health and safety labor codes so that repeated violators like Menzies are suspended from operating or shut down until they improve workplace safety. The alternative is maintaining the status quo and letting mostly low-wage workers continue to be injured or killed on their job.

So while we decry the atrocious conditions in Bangladeshi garment factors (where perhaps the shirt on your back was made), and guiltily ignore underage labor and worker suicides in Chinese electronics factories (where likely the computer or tablet you are reading this article was manufactured), we shouldn't forget to be appalled by the workplace conditions in our own backyard. Simply put, we haven't come as far as we should have in the hundred plus years since the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire.

Let's not let Cesar's death go forgotten. Let's push Cal/OSHA and employers like Menzies to take more responsibility for the safety of our workers.

This article was written in collaboration with Jorge Cabrera

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